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July 2, 2018

Doctor. Detective. Activist. Inside one physician's fight to expose Flint's water crisis.

Daily Briefing

    Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan, reflects on the role she played in exposing Flint's water crisis, writing in the New York Times opinion piece about how she became "an activist and detective" who collected data to show children's blood lead levels increased after the city switched water sources.

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    Becoming 'an activist and a detective'

    In the summer of 2015, Hanna-Attisha writes that she began to notice "a neurotoxin that can cause irreversible damage to the brain," in the blood results of the children who visited her clinic.

    Hanna-Attisha writes that a friend named Elin who had worked at EPA and was an expert on drinking water, "pushed me to do my own study on the blood lead levels of children in my clinic."

    Hanna-Attisha recalls, "When I got my patients' blood lead numbers, I was nervous about emailing them to [Elin]; I asked her to meet me instead." Hanna-Attisha continues, "Elin is a reserved person, ... [b]ut when she saw the study results showing that blood lead levels had increased since the water supply changed, she gripped my arm."

    Until that moment, "most of my professional life as a pediatrician and medical educator had been pretty predictable," Hanna-Attisha writes. "Now I was coming to see that my work couldn't stop with treating patients and training other pediatricians. I was becoming something new—an activist, and a detective."

    Pediatrician seeks to shed light on the crisis

    With the study in hand, Hanna-Attisha took action, calling and writing state health officials and meeting with the mayor. 

    "I kept thinking about all the worried parents I had seen over the past year. They were always asking about the water and whether it was safe," Hanna-Attisha writes. She continues, "My naïve trust in the government ... had made a liar out of me. For months we told our patients the Flint tap water was fine."

    However, while Hanna-Attisha had "cold, hard evidence of increased lead in the blood of Flint children," she "encountered more stonewalling and stalling—and every day the poison continued to flow."

    Hanna-Attisha finally held a news conference with a team of physicians and scientists to release their findings on the presence of lead in the water and urge public officials to take action to resolve the problem. She writes, "It was an unusual thing for a local pediatrician to do. But that's what you do when nobody's listening. You get louder."

    According to Hanna-Attisha, "The state—now under growing national pressure—finally acquiesced and within a month, the Flint water source was switched back to the Detroit system. It took a few months more for the state to acknowledge what it had done to its own people and apologize."

    'The Flint water crisis continues'

    "Today the trauma of the Flint water crisis continues and the public health emergency persists," Hanna-Attisha writes. "Our pipes were damaged by the untreated Flint River water, and more than four years later, the people of Flint are still on filtered and bottled water while the corroded pipes are being replaced."

    But, she writes, the city also is building "a model public health program to mitigate the damage caused by the lead," adding, "The science of brain development and resilience shows that for every child raised in a toxic environment or an unraveling community, there is hope."

    "Being awake is not enough. We have to be loud," Hanna-Attisha concludes. "Only when we mobilize and have a say in what happens to our communities will smarter decisions be made—for the environment, for public health and for all our children" (Hanna-Attisha, New York Times, 6/9; Spitzer, Becker's Health IT & CIO Report, 6/11).

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